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Does humour really exist in German-speaking Switzerland?

Does humour really exist in German-speaking Switzerland?
Photo: AFP
It’s the perception of many foreigners, that in the cold calm controlled social landscape of the German speaking cantons, humour does not exist. But it does, writes Shane Norton, who runs comedy nights in Basel and Zurich that are taking place this weekend.
It’s not that Swiss Germans don’t have a sense of humour it’s just they bury it very deeply below a shield of neutrality and politeness.
 
Give them time (think years rather than minutes) and you’ll finally get to it. In stark contrast to my own British culture, humour in German speaking Switzerland has a clear time and place.
 
And that place is not public, it’s confined to loved ones and friends and as we know, making friends in Switzerland takes time.
 
And as foreigners that’s hard to understand. When I first arrived, I started work and after just two weeks my colleague came to me with a stern warning.
 
They had noticed something bad in my behaviour.
 
Her claim “When we have meetings, for the first five minutes you make jokes”, I stood there feeling shocked as she explained “and it just comes across as you don’t take it very seriously.”
 
So I apologised profusely and promised to take things very seriously and stop making jokes. Later that
afternoon. The managing director for that part of the business came in and she jumped out of her seat, she was like “Herr Müller, it is so nice for you to come visit us. Let me introduce you to our new colleague, Shane Norton, he's an expert is this, that and everything, we're so happy to have him he’s been such a great help”.
 
To which I replied, “Don’t listen to her, I only make the tea”.
 
He didn’t even blink, her shoulders sunk and I stood there realising that old habits break hard.
 
In its most obvious form, Swiss German humour consists of an apologetic inward self-depreciation, dig deeper and you’ll find much of the normal venting of sarcastic frustration.
 
 
Shane Norton. Pic Shane Norton.
 
 
I once got told by Swiss colleagues that I had the Swiss German humour down perfectly. I don’t know how I did that, innine years of living in Zurich and speaking German, I’ve hardly seen it.
 
My colleagues’ comments can only lead me to think that the stripped-down British humour that I now deliver is now comparable to Swiss humour.
 
After years living here and countless awkward reactions I feel I have shed many of the fine things in British humour that the Swiss don’t understand.
 
Double meanings, extreme points of view, dry faced irony and full absurdity have all been weened out to leave nothing but grumbled sarcasm.
 
You see those things don’t go down well in a country that values neutrality, reliability and harmony.
 
You can’t mock a colleague, without breaking neutrality and risking their feelings.
 
You can’t present a strange and wacky idea, if people will believe you. And you certainly can’t get wild, noisy and outspoken without upsetting the Swiss social harmony.
 
And as is so common, it takes a foreigner to break that social harmony.
 
I never wanted to become a comedian. I just told jokes and Swiss people pulled up chairs. In other countries, if you tell a joke, people tell jokes back.
 
In Switzerland, you need immigrants for that. And that’s how it happened.
 
 
Rather than being one of the joking Brits, in Switzerland, I commonly found myself being the lone entertainer to groups of laughing Swiss Germans. So finally, I thought I might as well take it to the stage.
 
That was all a little over one year ago. It’s been a whirlwind since with weekly shows, a developing repertoire and a slow return of my comical freedom, which has seen me develop a growing ease to once again say what
 
I want, express my emotions and act outside the socially expected Swiss boundaries, albeit all within the safe boundaries of the stage.
 
The Zurich scene has exploded since then, with numerous open mic nights and professional shows.
 
The number of performers is growing and audiences can’t get enough. I think there is a huge demand with laughter starved expats who know the world can be different and open mind Swiss people who realise the world can be different.
 
The Swiss germans in our ranks are getting funnier, but in my opinion, they’ll always have an uphill struggle while the strong social pressure to conform remains.
 
Shane Norton is organiser and host of Comedy Kiss’s English-Speaking Stand-Up events. His new
series “The Big Comedy Kiss” is premiering this weekend on Saturday at Theater Fauteuil in Basel
and on Sunday at Labor5 in Zurich. Headlining the show is award winning UK comedian Alun
Cochrane alongside Scottish Comedian of the year finalist Grant Gallacher. Also appearing will be
local comics Eddie Ramirez and Jack Roberts, there to ensure a local twist and a good laugh at the
expense of local Swiss people and expats alike. Find more details under www.comedykiss.ch
 
 
 

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